Is Universalism Heretical, part 3

Before considering the implications these anathemas for universalism we need to say a word about how accurately they represent Origen’s thought. Origen’s ideas were always controversial but to understand both sets of anathemas we need to understand that in the three hundred years between his death and the Fifth Ecumenical Council his ideas had been picked up and developed in more radical directions that one finds in Origen’s own work. Indeed, arguably Origen himself would have agreed with some of these anathemas. It was the theology of these Origenists—people such as Evagrius of Pontus (346-399)—rather than that of Origen himself that was condemned by Justinian and the Council. But neither the Council nor the later church made this distinction between Origen and Origenism—he was the seed from which the plant had grown, even if it had mutated as it developed—and thus Origen was condemned for the theological views of his heirs.

That aside, the critical question is: what did the Council intend to condemn? Universalism per se or a specific kind of universalism? So what exactly did the Fifth Council condemn?

1. All forms of universalism? It seems that many thought that this was so. The fact that a lot of medieval theologians were very cautious about any affirmations of universal salvation suggests that the general opinion was that the Church had condemned universalism.

2. The proposal that one can assert all will definitely be saved? Balthasar, in his works on universal salvation, insists that all that the Council rejected was the notion that we can assert universal salvation with absolutely certainty. He argued, as do many modern theologians, that one can certainly hope all will be saved but that certainty is not permitted in light of the anathemas.

3. A version of universalism that taught a universal return of pre-existence souls to an original state. This was arguably Origen’s view but its exclusion does not rule out different versions of apokatastasis.

In defense of view 3 let me make the following observations:

First, it is clear that when apokatastasis is condemned in the fifteen canons it is always done so in association with other, problematic, ideas. Thus in anathemas I and XV the concern is with apokatastasis as linked with the idea of the pre-existence of souls and an eschatology which sees a simple return of souls to an original unity. In anathema XIV it is apokatastasis as associated with an immaterial, pantheistic eschatology. But this is not a condemnation of universalism as such. Rather, it is a condemnation of universalism as linked into a wider, theologically problematic, system of thought. Even Justinian’s anathema IX—an anathema the status of which is ambiguous given that it was not a product of the Ecumenical Council—which looks like a blanket condemnation of all universalism might, in context, be taken as a condemnation of Origenist-universalism. Certainly when the Fifth Ecumenical Council turned Justinian’s earlier anathemas against Origen into fifteen approved anathemas they nuanced it in that way. If Justinian intended a blanket condemnation of universalism that was not what the Council agreed to.

Second, in support of this interpretation we may note that Gregory of Nyssa was known to teach a version of universal salvation that denied the problematic notion of the pre-existence of souls. Neither Gregory nor his teachings are ever condemned. Indeed, Gregory was highly revered as an orthodox theologian—named the “Father of the Fathers” by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787—and remains so to this day. One contemporary Orthodox theologian wrote to me as follows:
Bulgakov points out, quite astutely I think, that Gregory of Nyssa’s version of apokatastasis, which is more developed and less ambiguous than that of Origen, has never been officially condemned. This means, I suppose, that any Orthodox theologian has, shall we say, a canonical loophole to speak of the apokatastasis a la Nyssa, not a la Origen—an apologetic move that Bulgakov makes.

According to Bulgakov, the doctrine of eternal hell does not have the status of a dogma in the East. Bulgakov wrote a very important essay, “Dogma and Doctrine”, in which he argued that strictly speaking, the Seven Ecumenical Councils have endorsed only two main doctrines—the trinity and incarnation with some corollaries, likes the status of Mary and the veneration of icons—and that most other central beliefs are to be relegated to the status of theologoumena [issues over which individual Christians may hold different personal opinions]. I must admit that I am more inclined to accept Bulgakov’s minimalism, than the dogmatic maximalism which characterizes, for example, the scholastic tradition in the West.

Third, when the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned Origen by name in canon XI, the context suggests that Christology and not apokatastasis was the primary concern.

Finally, we might add that none of the central claims of orthodox Christianity, as embodied in the rule of faith or the Ecumenical Creeds, is incompatible with universalism. So universalism is certainly not unorthodox in the sense of being contrary to essential dogma. Indeed some universalists have embraced universalism precisely because they feel that it enables them to better hold together important Christian beliefs which stand in awkward tension on more traditional notions of hell (e.g., divine love for creation and divine providence over creation).


"Nick" said…
It was my understanding, and you mentioned it briefly in the last post, that these anathemas were not ratified by the whole council. Only the anathema against Origen (and others) that does not mention his universalism was ratified by the whole council.

This seems to indicate that a certain group wanted to take the anathema further than the general ecumenical council would allow, indicating that the council in general was not opposed to universalism, or at least was divided on the issue.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

I think your reasoning is accurate on option 3. The naming of Nyssa as "Father of Fathers" when he was pretty openly universalist seems to indicate that the councils were more interested in Origen's pre-existence than his universalism.
Robin Parry said…

I am not entirely sure. The anathemas are not part of the main deliberations of the council but an appendix. However, I do not know how many of those at the council were involved with them. Some? Most? All?

I take it that the anathemas carry the weight of the whole council.

However, the status of Justinian's anathemas (hammered out at a local council some years earlier) does not carry the same weight. It does carry weight but less weight (and it gets closer to damning universalism in general than the anathemas of the council). Exactly how much weight it carries is an issue that has not really been agreed by the Church.

My point is simply that the fifteen anathemas do not rule out universalism as such but only specific versions of universalism.
Unknown said…
If you are interested in some new ideas on the Trinity and religious pluralism, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see:

Samuel Stuart Maynes

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